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Feb / Mar 2017
Playing it Cool

WRITER: Nadia Michel PHOTOGRAPHER: Steve Herud

Berlin has become one of the hippest places around. Its combination of avant-garde music, art, fashion and food offers just the right dose of R&R – that’s reflection and relaxation. 

There’s something about Berlin. Simply uttering its name is enough to elicit a knowing look and an inevitable commentary on the German capital’s artsy underground scene, or on the fact its nightclubs have a last call at 1 o’clock. In the afternoon, that is.

One of the city’s most famous clubs is called Berghain, and it’s notoriously difficult to get into, thanks, in no small part to Sven, a doorman with such a formidably enigmatic entry policy that there are actually countless online posts now offering tips for getting past the velvet rope. Then there’s the slightly more mainstream Bar Tausend, tucked away under a railway bridge in Friedrichstrasse, with its unmarked entrance, doorbell and peephole assessment. Yet, upon setting foot in the pleasingly edgy Sir Savigny Hotel, my sceptical self reasoned that the whole underground thing was likely a little overdone, an exaggerated urban tale rooted in communist East Berlin. After all, the entire hipster movement barely has any novelty factor left in its tank.

 

A prominent mural also takes prominence in the Sir Savigny hotel garden. It was painted by the famous street artist, DOME, and shows a dark female nude – inspired by shadow theatre.

 

The 44-room (and three suite) Sir Savigny is a far cry from your traditional luxury hotel though. For starters, they’ve done away with a number of usual hotel amenities such as the pool, spa and even the traditional all-day dining restaurant (though more on that later). Then they went a step further and scratched a lobby off their plans too. Instead, you enter into a thoughtfully accessorised library, filled with a number of books on design, fashion and, dare I say it, tattoos, at the centre of which is a large wooden communal table. There’s no real front desk too. Rather, they’ve added a small, unassuming pedestal just left of the entrance, where there’s always a staff member ready to greet guests in a disarmingly casual manner.
“The service is very loose, very friendly,” explains Liran Wizman, founder and owner of Europe Hotels Private Collection, the Amsterdam-based group that owns and operates this and many other concept hotels around Europe. Sir Savigny is the latest property in the Sir brand that includes Sir Albert and Sir Adam in Amsterdam, as well as the Sir Nikolai in Hamburg and Sir Juan in Ibiza, both of which are slated to open this spring. But that’s not to say their service is inattentive. We found the staff to be ready and aware, whether in subtly making sure our drinks were replenished or adeptly taking care of reservation and other various requests.

 

Benedict has one of the best brunches in the city.

 

As would be expected for a capital of cool, reservations are a way of life here, especially when it comes to getting a place at some of the city’s coolest hot spots, like Cookies Cream – a chic vegetarian restaurant located in a well-known nightclub complex and accessed via an anonymous door (yep, again) near the dumpsters in the service alley between the Westin Grand and the Komische Oper (that’s the opera, and it should be on everyone’s to-do list). Once inside, you still need to climb a flight of stairs before you’ll find yourself in Berlin’s veggie heaven. It’s purposefully rough around the edges. There are concrete walls, an uneven floor and white-linen-clad tables above which hang tubular lights connected by loosely tangled electrical cables. To one side of the room is an open kitchen, where chef Stephan Hentschel serves up creative four and five-course flesh-free meals. Grilled leaks with black sesame, boiled onsen tamago egg with kale and baked aubergine with corn purée were a few of the choices on the menu when we visited. The conservative portions made for a novel and refined meal, enhanced all the more by a creative pairing with a refreshing Riesling. 

 

The lobby at Sir Savigny serves as a gathering space for eating, drinking and private parties.

 

Off to the perfect start on our evening’s gastronomic debauchery, the next stop was our hotel to try The Butcher, an upscale burger bar that unabashedly beckons patrons with a giant (and luckily synthetic) carcass of a cow hanging in the front window. Given that we still had some room left after our meal at Cookies Cream, we chose a Babbaganoush burger (combining Aberdeen Angus beef, grilled aubergines, tahini and spices) with a side of fries and some truffle and tahini sauces. Unusual? Perhaps, but it was in fact a great combination of Middle Eastern and Western flavours, and we savoured it, listening to Bob Marley, and the chatter of a couple of kids enjoying some beers. It was like the world had united for just a brief moment.

“The devil is in the details you know, a burger bar in the middle of the lobby of a design hotel could be a disaster,” said Wizman about the culinary concept in the hotel, developed with The Entourage Group, a buzz-creating FnB group that Wizman has collaborated with before. It’s a fair point too, because watching a tattooed grill-chef flipping burgers while you sip bubbly on a mid-century inspired sofa could easily have been a turnoff, but somehow it works.

 

Crackers, which combines good food and a pumping atmosphere is the latest venture by the owners of Cookies Cream. It is set in the same complex and features DJs throughout the week.

 

The next day, in order to atone for our double-dinner sins, we decided to borrow a couple of the hotel’s basket-equipped commuter bikes and head for the East Side Gallery, a 1,316 metre-long preserved section of the Berlin Wall that was painted in 1990 by artists from all over the world to serve as a memorial. Berlin’s a great place for a bicycle ride: it’s almost completely flat and you’re far from alone – the latest stats estimate that as much 20 per cent of all journeys undertaken in Berlin are now on bike-back. Even the PR woman who we later met at the hotel had pedalled over, before changing into a pair of high heels.

Berlin is not Amsterdam though. It’s a big city and can’t easily be traversed using pedal power alone, especially in the freezing cold of winter. Luckily, bikes are allowed on trains, as long as you purchase a ticket for your two-wheeled friend that is. And it made for a fun hybrid transportation plan, although you should be aware that it’s not easy lugging a bike up and down the stairs or figuring out how to work the very complex ticketing machines (the lady who graciously helped us said it took her two years to master.)

 

Cookies Cream is intentionally hard to find. You have to go around a corner, down an alley, past the dumpsters, up the stairs, and through the back of a club just to get to this vegetarian oasis.

 

Thankfully, the Wall is a worthwhile visit and the murals provide an enduring expression of the global euphoria induced by the dismantling of the Iron Curtain. A visit to the nearby DDR Museum, where government-built communist apartments have been recreated, accurate to the last detail (even down to the standard yellow vinyl wallpaper and plastic kitchen accessories) is also an epochal experience. One of its main attractions is the Trabi simulator, in which an actual Trabant 601 has been given a 3D simulator windscreen to allow you to virtually drive through a housing estate in the German Democratic Republic. We learned that this rudimentary little car commanded a sixteen-year waiting list during the Communist era. Luckily, people were quite busy doing other things though, like perfecting their physiques in state-sponsored sports activities and enjoying nudist beaches, which were apparently quite the rage at the time.

 

Shots of Art offers on the spot, playful photoshoots, the images from which you can print in all sorts of ways, even on t-shirts. 

 

Nowadays Berliners are, for the most part, fully clothed, and they veer towards a streamlined style that you find in places like LNFA, at the Bikini Berlin concept mall. This achingly cool shop, owned by a PR firm, stocks clothes by young, local fashion designers while also hosting and curating original artistic endeavours, like the one we stumbled upon when we picked up a fabulous top hat from one of the shop’s tables. A saleswoman who had darted towards us hastily informed us it was actually a prop belonging to Shots of Art, a professional photoshoot service within the shop. Intrigued, we had a go and ended up going home with a USB full of photos of us in vintage aviator goggles, officer hats, leather chaps and sequin bustiers.

As luck would have it, the Bikini Berlin shopping centre (which overlooks the Berlin Zoo) is just four blocks from our hotel in prime Charlottenburg, along the Kantstraße, known for its bevy of furniture and design stores. And though we enjoyed taking our time to do a little window-shopping, the warmth inside Sir Savigny was a welcome relief as we made our way upstairs to our small but effective room. Effective, because, though it was dim, it was also calming and the bed was alluringly comfortable. So much so that cocooning ourselves in the soft bedding while chilling out to some carefully chosen music playing from the Marshall Bluetooth speaker on the nightstand proved a perfect way to plan the evening ahead.

 

A realistic life-size faux carcass hangs in the street entrance of The Butcher, the burger bar attached to the Sir Savigny Hotel.

 

It has been said that the only people who sport fake nails and high heels in Berlin’s nightclubs are transvestites, so I erred on the side of caution with my footwear that night but the evening still turned out rather well. The Grand, a former schoolhouse with yet another unmarked entrance, served up a satisfying (but not flawless) steak-centric meal preceded by hushed conversation in the moody cocktail bar downstairs and followed by countless other drinks at the artsy-crowd filled bar in the adjoining room (which stays open very, very late).

Mercifully, the rooms at Sir Savigny are perfect for sleeping in on a Sunday – you won’t hear a peep and the curtains provide a black out. Ours was much needed and, once back to the land of the living, we ventured out for brunch at sister hotel Max Brown’s Benedict outpost, which is just a fifteen-minute walk away. This urban hub is a popular hotspot brimming with locals indulging in the signature fresh lemon, ginger and mint tea, the unexpectedly light and savoury chick pea pancakes and the decadently tasty Iraqi Tower – layers of fried eggplant, potato latkes and fresh tomatoes drizzled with tahini. It’s a concentrated and modern take on Middle Eastern cuisine in a fresh, hip setting.

 

Savigny’s rooms are meant to reflect the mindset of its mythical namesake, a bon vivant who has dedicated his life to beauty and storytelling.

 

And awed as we were by the seemingly never-ending queue at the door (even well into the afternoon), it finally became abundantly clear why our hotel’s owner, Liran Wizman, had made Berlin his hospitality group EHPC’s first foray outside the Netherlands. It’s a cool place, #FR (that’s ‘for real’ for the less acronymically aware). Their next venture? A new Edition hotel in Milan, in partnership with, none other than legendary hotelier Ian Shrager.

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